Washington is facing its biggest tuberculosis outbreak in 20 years, forcing the Evergreen State to be on heightened alert amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Surge In Cases

In 2021, the rise in TB transmissions became more pronounced when the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) reported 199 cases, a 22% increase from 2020. This year, the trend seemingly continued to rise, with the department reporting 70 cases on Thursday, according to King 5

Last year, the Puget Sound region — particularly King, Pierce and Snohomish — was the hardest hit by the outbreak. This 2022, cases have been reported throughout Washington. Per the DOH, at least 17 new cases were connected to each other and state prisons, making it the “largest” TB outbreak locally in the last two decades. 

“It’s been 20 years since we saw a cluster of TB cases like this. The pandemic has likely contributed to the rise in cases and the outbreak in at least one correctional facility,” Washington State’s chief science officer Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett told King 5. 

TB Trends In The U.S.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave attention to the TB situation in the country amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The public health agency said fewer cases were being reported due to delayed or missed diagnoses. 

The pandemic appeared to have had a “substantial effect” on the TB trends in the country based on the sharp decline in reported cases. Experts acknowledged that even though there could have been a true reduction in transmissions because of the mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, other factors might have contributed to the slower rate of case documentation. 

One factor singled out during a discussion of the TB trends from 2020 to 2021 by the CDC pointed at the widespread disruptions to healthcare operations due to the COVID restrictions, causing a delay in TB diagnoses in many areas. Another factor was the missed diagnosis since more medical workers focused on diagnosing SARS-CoV-2 infection instead of other respiratory diseases. 

Understanding Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis or TB is a disease caused by bacteria spread from person to person through the air. The condition typically affects the lungs, but the infection may also attack other organs, including the brain, kidneys, or the spine. Without proper treatment, the disease could be fatal, as per the CDC

TB is characterized by general symptoms such as feeling of sickness or weakness, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. For pulmonary TB, the main symptoms are coughing, chest pain, and hemoptysis (coughing up blood). For TB infection affecting other parts of the body, the symptoms may vary. 

The disease is not contracted instantly. A person may only get TB after constant exposure to someone with active disease. A skin test or TB blood test can help detect TB infection. Once diagnosed, a patient is prescribed treatment that involves taking a combination of drugs for 6 to 12 months. 

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